BOULDER – Nothing came easy for the resurgent Colorado Buffaloes on Saturday night, but they still came away from Folsom Field cradling their first 2-0 record since 2008.
CU rallied with three fourth-quarter touchdowns to finally put away stubborn Central Arkansas 38-24 and win its home opener under first-year coach Mike MacIntyre.
“These young men keep fighting, they never get down, they just keep playing,” MacIntyre said. “It wasn’t pretty, but I’ll take a win any day . . . either way, we’re pretty fun to watch.”
In avoiding a third all-time loss to a lower division (FCS) opponent, the Buffs scored on two interception returns – Greg Henderson and Jered Bell – and received a second consecutive strong receiving performance from Paul Richardson (11 catches, 209 yards, two touchdowns).
CU quarterback Connor Wood passed for 341 yards (23-of-36) and submitted his second straight three-TD game of the season. But he suffered his first pair of interceptions this season, lost two fumbles and was sacked four times – none of which happened last week in the 41-27 opening win against Colorado State.
Still, Wood gathered himself and outdueled UCA quarterback Winrick Smothers (33-of-55, 280 yards, two TDs). Smothers, the offensive player-of-the-year last season in the Southland Conference, completed nine of his passes (89 yards, one score) to receiver Dezmin Lewis.
The game was tied at 24-24 in the fourth quarter when CU freshman Chidobe Awuzie wrestled the ball away from UCA freshman receiver Jatavious Wilson and set up the Buffs for their go-ahead touchdown.
When Ralphie V and the Buffs players couldn’t get synched up for the CU mascot’s pregame run onto the field, you had to figure the home team’s early timing might be off. The press box explanation for Ralphie staying in her pen had to do with some timing issues related to the return of the inflatable tunnel and smoke as the players entered the field.
Whatever, CU’s first series produced an illegal substitution penalty, a timeout because of a near 25-second clock violation and a punt – a not-so-silky start.
But the Buffs finally shrugged it off and led 14-0 early in the second quarter after a 55-yard Wood-to-Richardson touchdown pass, Henderson’s 46-yard interception return and a pair of PATs by Will Oliver.
All were instrumental in last weekend’s win against CSU, with Wood throwing for 400 yards and three TDs, Richardson catching a pair of scoring passes and Henderson returning a fumble 53 yards for a score. Henderson’s pair of defensive TDs in consecutive games marked the first time since 2002 that CU got multiple defensive scores in the same season (Jeremy Bloom, Medford Moorer).
The Bears didn’t blink, and what had been an error-free season – no turnovers in the opener – for the Buffs suddenly ended. Wood, who wasn’t sacked by CSU, fumbled as he was slung to the Folsom turf by defensive end Markeith Gaines. Fellow end Derek Floyd recovered at the UCA 31, and six plays later Smothers hit Lewis with a 23-yard TD pass.
Sophomore Jace Denker’s PAT – his first career point – brought the Bears to 14-7, and if Buffs fans thought “so what?” it was the wrong thought.
On CU’s next series, Wood suffered his first interception of the season – a deflected ball intended for slot receiver D.D. Goodson that was lunged for and grabbed by defensive back Bobby Watkins at his own 24-yard line.
Ten plays later, Smothers capped an 76-yard march with an 11-yard scoring pass to tight end Chase Dixon. Denker’s extra point tied the score at 14-14 with 22 seconds remaining before intermission.
Wood finished the half 12-of-18 for 179 yards, one TD and one INT. Smothers was16-of-22 for 158 yards and two TDs, one INT.
And Lewis (four catches, 64 yards, one TD) was every bit as effective for his team as Richardson (six catches, 122 yards, one TD) was for his.
MacIntyre called Lewis “a good player. We can’t let him beat us.”
Things appeared to settle down for the Buffs – at least in coming onto the field behind Ralphie. And then came the second half kickoff . . . and more CU coverage issues. After giving up an 84-yard kickoff return and a 74-yard punt return to CSU, Wilson took back Saturday’s second-half kickoff 88 yards to set up a 28-yard Denker field goal and the Bears’ first lead (17-14) of the game.
Wood and CU answered with a 55-yard march that positioned Oliver – he had missed from 53 yards in the first half – for a 31-yard field goal that tied the score at 17-17 with 11:28 left in the third quarter.
It held until UCA’s Gaines got his hands on Wood once more – and once again Wood fumbled. Defensive end Jonathan Woodard scooped up the ball and ran to the CU 16 before being hauled down from behind by Buffs tackle Stephane Nembot.
The Bears ran six plays and advanced to the Buffs’ 1-yard line, where on the first play of the fourth quarter Smothers scored on a quarterback sneak. Denker’s PAT pushed UCA up 24-17 with all but four seconds of the last quarter remaining for CU to pull itself together and avoid being flipped by another FCS opponent.
Time was on the Buffs’ side, but the Bears weren’t clock watching – they were zeroing in on Wood. The pressure continued, and Wood tossed his second interception of the game – this one picked by free safety Marvin Mitchell at the UCA 44.
Smothers drove the Bears as far as the Buffs’ 24-yard line before CU safety Jered Bell stepped in front of a Smothers pass, picked it and ran 79 yards for the TD – coupled with Oliver’s PAT – that tied the game once more (24-24).
The Buffs went ahead with 9:16 to play when Awuzie pilfered the football from Wilson after a short reception and set up Wood & Co. at the UCA 30-yard line. On the second play, Wood found Richardson open again – this time for 30 yards and their fourth TD hookup of the season.
Oliver’s extra point gave CU another seven-point lead (31-24) but the Buffs couldn’t take a deep breath until Wood hit Nelson Spruce on a third-and-20 receiver screen and Spruce took it 39 yards for a touchdown down the sideline in front of the Buffs bench.
With 4:24 remaining, Oliver kicked CU ahead 38-24 and UCA was left to search for miracles. There were none after CU corner Kenneth Crawley intercepted Smothers in the end zone with 1:50 to play. The Buffs took over at their 20-yard line, got one first down and put a period on a wild home opener.
NOTABLE: Saturday’s attendance of 35,168 was the lowest at Folsom Field since 1988 (32,617 vs. Kansas State) . . . . The Buffs evened their all-time record against FCS opponents at 2-2, while UCA lost for the second time in two seasons to a FBS school . . . . The Buffs had not won at home since Nov. 11, 2011 – a 48-29 victory over Arizona . . . . UCA’s Wallace suffered a dislocated ankle in the second half and was taken from the field on a stretcher . . . . UCA coach Clint Conque still needs one win to reach his 100th career win . . . . The Buffs return to Folsom Field next Saturday to play Fresno State (12:05 p.m.). Fresno State bashed CU 69-14 last season.